recent years educators have explored links between classroom teaching
and emerging theories about how people learn. Exciting discoveries
in neuroscience and continued developments in cognitive psychology
have presented new ways of thinking about the brain-the human neurological
structure and the attendant perceptions and emotions that contribute
to learning. Explanations of how the brain works have used metaphors
that vary from the computer (an information processor, creating,
storing, and manipulating data) to a jungle (a somewhat chaotic,
layered world of interwoven, interdependent neurological connections).
caution that the brain is complex and, while research has revealed
some significant findings, there is no widespread agreement about
their applicability to the general population or to education in
particular. Nevertheless, brain research provides rich possibilities
for education and reports of studies from this field have become
popular topics in some educational journals. Enterprising organizations
are translating these findings into professional development workshops
and instructional programs to help teachers apply lessons from the
research to classroom settings. References to several teaching models
based on brain research are found below.
Opportunities for Learning
neuroscientists believe that at birth the human brain has all the
neurons it will ever have. Some connections, those that control
such automatic functions as breathing and heartbeat, are in place
at birth, but most of the individual's mental circuitry results
from experiences that greet the newborn and continue, probably,
throughout his or her life. How and when neural connections are
made is a topic of debate. Some researchers believe the circuits
are completed by age five or six. Other studies extend the period
of development from birth to the later elementary school years.
Still others argue that nerve connections can be modified throughout
life with new connections forming perhaps even late in life. For
educators who subscribe to the first view, programs and activities
aimed at preschoolers (e.g., Head Start or Sesame Street) increase
in importance. The second perception supports offering complex subjects
much earlier in the curriculum than has been traditional. The third
encourages efforts for lifelong learning.
links between learning, the number of neural connections, or the
time frame for development of those connections are not clearly
understood. In the case of sight, evidence suggests that after a
critical development period vision is severely stunted or fails
altogether. For musical learning, some researchers have found that
the longer someone plays an instrument the more cortex will be dedicated
to controlling the finger movements needed to play it. Exposure
to music and development of spatial reasoning (skills that can be
transferred to mathematical understanding) seem to be connected.
and other findings encourage educators and parents to expose very
young children to a variety of learning experiences-providing blocks
and beads to handle and observe, talking to the child, playing peek-a-boo.
The NCTM Curriculum and Evaluation Standards encourage teachers
of kindergartners to let students work with patterns; sort, count,
and classify objects; use numbers in games; and explore geometric
shapes and figures. It is not too early to engage such young children
in discussions about patterns, beginning data analysis, sequencing,
and number sense. The introduction of a second language is best
attempted in these early years as well. In fact, some researchers
look to the first year of life as the best "window of opportunity"
for accelerated learning.
Emotions and the Mind
may find the most useful information in research that focuses less
on the physical and biochemical structure of the brain and more
on the mind-a complex mix of thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and
reasoning. Studies that explore the effects of attitudes and emotions
on learning indicate that stress and constant fear, at any age,
can circumvent the brain's normal circuits. A person's physical
and emotional well-being are closely linked to the ability to think
and to learn effectively. Emotionally stressful home or school environments
are counterproductive to students' attempts to learn. While schools
cannot control all the influences that impinge on a young person's
sense of safety and well-being, classrooms and schools that build
an atmosphere of trust and intellectual safety will enhance learning.
Letting students talk about their feelings can help them build skills
in listening to their classmates' comments. Finding ways to vent
emotions productively can help students deal with inevitable instances
of anger, fear, hurt, and tension in daily life.
Are you left brained?
is difficult to sort through all the information offered by brain
and mind research and make wise choices for the classroom. One popularization
of mind-based research, the hemisphericity theory, has attributed
certain learning styles and preferences to dominance of the left
or the right side of the brain. This dichotomy seems to explain
observable differences among learners and designations of "left-brained"
and "right-brained" have appeared in our popular culture. The original
studies that supported the theory, however, involved severing (either
through an accident or by surgery) the band of nerve fibers, the
corpus callosum, that connects the two hemispheres. In a normal
brain the two sides of the brain operate together, but with the
connection severed, the two halves cannot communicate. The popular
interpretation of the hemisphere explanation of personal learning
styles ignored the complex, interactive reality of the two sides
working together. While understanding the brain's hemispheres is
undoubtedly relevant to education, children cannot be categorized
as exclusively left-brained or right-brained learners.
popular interpretation of research on human learning is based on
Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. First published
in 1983, Gardner's Frames of Mind presented a vision of seven intelligences
(linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic,
musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal) that humans exhibit in unique
and individual variations. An antidote to the narrow definition
of intelligence as reflected in standardized test results, Gardner's
theories have been embraced and transformed into curricular interpretations
across the country. Many teachers instinctively respond to the notion
that students learn and excel in a variety of ways, and believe
that a classroom that offers an array of learning opportunities
increases the likelihood of success for more students. Gardner himself,
however, counsels against widespread application of his theory to
every learning situation. All concepts do not lend themselves to
every variation of Gardner's list and attempts to present every
lesson in seven different modes pushes the theory beyond its practical
usefulness. These profiles also should not be used as diagnostic
indicators of a student's talents. Just as students are not fully
right-brained or left-brained, they should not be defined by their
predilection for one or more of Gardner's categories. The goal of
education is to encourage the development of well-rounded individuals.
Environments for Learning
educational approaches, then, consist primarily of trying to maintain
a relaxed, focused atmosphere that offers options for learning in
individually satisfying ways. The old paradigm of students as empty
vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge has given way to the
constructivist belief that students continuously build understandings
based on their prior experiences and new information. The idea of
a fixed intelligence has given way to a more flexible perception
of gradual intellectual development dependent on external stimulation.
Edelman, chairman of the Department of Neurobiology at Scripps Research
Institute and 1972 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physiology,
offers a view of the brain that could influence the future classroom.
Edelman's vision of the brain as a jungle in which systems interact
continuously in a chaotic fashion suggests that learners would thrive
in an environment that provides many sensory, cultural, and problem
layers. These ideas suggest that students have a natural inclination
to learn, understand, and grow. Surround students with a variety
of instructional opportunities and they will make the connections
R. N., and G. Caine (1991). Making connections: Teaching and
the human brain. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision
and Curriculum Development.
In addition to addressing several assumptions that teachers hold
about education and citing facts and theories about the human brain,
the authors discuss twelve principles of brain-based learning and
the implications of those principles for educators. They directly
challenge the simplification of learning into left- and right-brained
G.M. (1992). Bright air, brilliant fire: On the matter of the
mind. New York: Basic.
Gerald M. Edelman, a Nobel Prize recipient, uses the metaphor of
the jungle to describe the workings of the brain and explicitly
rejects the metaphor of the brain as a computer. Using the ideas
of evolutionary morphology and selection, he portrays the brain
as a multilayered representation full of loops and layers.
E. W. (1997). Cognition and representation; A way to pursue the
American dream. Phi Delta Kappan 78, 5: 348-353.
An introduction to a special section on cognition and representation,
this article sets out some of the ideas that will follow in the
articles in the section and emphasizes the role of culture in processing
representation and forming minds.
H. (1991). The unschooled mind: How children think and how schools
should teach. New York: Basic.
Gardner describes natural learners, normal children who develop
a vast array of intuitive understandings about their world even
before they enter school.
R. (1997, Oct.). How emotions affect learning. Educational Leadership:
Emotion plays an important part in learning and schools need to
focus on metacognitive activities that allow students to identify
and deal with their own emotions and those of others. Emotionally
stressful environments can inhibit learning.
Based on Research on Learning and the Brain
E., T. Carpenter, and M. Loef Franke (1992). CGI: Cognitively
guided instruction. University of Wisconsin-Madison: Wisconsin
Center for Education Research. (1025 West Johnson Street, Madison,
S., Olsen, K. D. (1997). Integrated thematic instruction: The
model. Kent, WA: Susan Kovalik, & Associates.
B. (1987). The 4Mat system: Teaching to learning styles with
right/left mode techniques. Barrington IL: EXCEL.
R. (1992). A different kind of classroom: Teaching with dimensions
of learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and
brain performs many functions simultaneously. Learning is enhanced
by a rich environment with a variety of stimuli.
content through a variety of teaching strategies, such as
physical activities, individual learning times, group interactions,
artistic variations, and musical interpretations to help orchestrate
engages the entire physiology. Physical development, personal
comfort, and emotional state affect the ability to learn.
aware that children mature at different rates; chronological
age may not reflect the student's readiness to learn.
facets of health (stress management, nutrition, exercise)
into the learning process.
search for meaning is innate. The mind's natural curiosity can
be engaged by complex and meaningful challenges.
to present lessons and activities that arouse the mind's search
brain is designed to perceive and generate patterns.
information in context (real life science, thematic instruction)
so the learner can identify patterns and connect with previous
and cognition cannot be separated. Emotions can be crucial to
the storage and recall of information.
build a classroom environment that promotes positive attitudes
among students and teachers and about their work.
students to be aware of their feelings and how the emotional
climate affects their learning.
brain simultaneously perceives and creates parts and wholes.
to avoid isolating information from its context. This isolation
makes learning more difficult.
activities that require full brain interaction and communication.
involves both focused attention and peripheral perception.
materials (posters, art, bulletin boards, music) outside the
learner's immediate focus to influence learning.
aware that the teacher's enthusiasm, modeling, and coaching
present important signals about the value of what is being
always involves conscious and unconscious processes.
"hooks" or other motivational techniques to encourage personal
"active processing" through reflection and metacognition to
help students consciously review their learning.
have at least two types of memory: spatial, which registers
our daily experience, and rote learning, which deals with facts
and skills in isolation.
information and skills from prior experience forces the learner
to depend on rote memory.
to avoid an emphasis on rote learning; it ignores the learner's
personal side and probably interferes with subsequent development
brain understands best when facts and skills are embedded in
natural spatial memory.
techniques that create or mimic real world experiences and
use varied senses. Examples include demonstrations, projects,
metaphor, and integration of content areas that embed ideas
in genuine experience.
is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.
to create an atmosphere of "relaxed alertness" that is low
in threat and high in challenge.
brain is unique. The brain's structure is actually changed by
multifaceted teaching strategies to attract individual interests
and let students express their auditory, visual, tactile,
or emotional preferences.
Source: From "Understanding a Brain-Based Approach to Learning and Teaching" by R. N. Caine and G. Caine, October 1990, Educational Leadership, 48(2), pp. 66-70. Copyright 1990 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). Adapted by Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) with permission of ASCD.